Written by Rob Spence
Anthony Burgess, whose centenary is celebrated this year, remarked ruefully on more than one occasion that he produced as many novels in a year as E.M. Forster managed in a long lifetime. Yet if Burgess is known at all by the general public, it is as the author of A Clockwork Orange, and then only on the back of Stanley Kubrick’s film of that controversial novel. The centenary is the ideal opportunity to bring his work to a wider audience, and celebrate the enormous variety of his output.
In a writing career that lasted about 35 years, Burgess produced an un-Forsterian total of 33 novels, two scintillating volumes of autobiography, over a dozen works of literary criticism and linguistic study, several plays, many poems and short stories, and a huge number of reviews and critical articles. He also wrote film treatments, even inventing a whole language for Quest for Fire; translated Rostand’s Cyrano into rhyming couplets; produced TV scripts for epic series such as Jesus of Nazareth; wrote a musical based on Joyce’s Ulysses; adapted Oedipus, Carmen and Der Rosenkavalier, as well as translating some novels from the French in his spare time. Then there’s the music: symphonies, concerti, quartets, song settings and lots of fragments, dashed off after the regulation thousand or more words a day. As he writes in his wonderfully engaging memoir, Little Wilson and Big God, “Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness, there is no excuse for being idle now.”
So, faced with the scale of Burgess’s industry, where to start? Let’s assume that all who wish to will have read A Clockwork Orange by now: it’s not exactly typical of Burgess’s work, and there are plenty of other novels that will enthral the novice reader of his output. What follows, then, is not intended as a “greatest hits” but rather as a selection to demonstrate the variety and breadth of the Burgess oeuvre.
Burgess seldom wasted any experience if it was likely to yield material, so it is no surprise that his first published work is clearly based on his service as a colonial officer in the dying days of empire. The trilogy now known by the title The Long Day Wanes appeared in the late fifties, and chronicles the doomed attempts of a diffident Englishman, Victor Crabbe, to come to terms with the polyglot diversity of Malaya in the years before independence. The first volume, Time for a Tiger, maintains a steadily comic tone, though the mood darkens in the second and third volumes. The trilogy is a marvellously imagined evocation of the end of empire, but unusually for a British author, the focus is not just on the colonials: the Malays, the Chinese, the Sikhs, and, in the final volume, the jungle dwelling Hindus are all represented, so that this becomes a truly authentic account of this moment in the history of what was shortly to become Malaysia.
Burgess’s main literary touchstones were Joyce and Shakespeare. He produced two volumes on Joyce, including possibly the best introduction to his work for the general reader, Here Comes Everybody. For the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, he wrote the ambitious and absorbing ‘novel of Shakespeare’s love life’ Nothing Like the Sun. By any standards, this is an astonishing achievement. The chronology of the novel is relatively straightforward, with a short introductory section establishing Shakespeare as a romantic troubled by visions of a goddess-like muse, (to whom he writes a sonnet, invented for the purpose by Burgess) falling for the charms of Anne Hathaway and entering a forced marriage with her. The second section depicts a twenty-eight year old WS in the thick of the London theatre scene in the early 1590s, meeting Mr WH, Florio, Burbage, Marlowe, Henslowe, Greene and other theatrical luminaries. A coda takes us to Shakespeare’s deathbed in Stratford, at the end of an inventive, playful and at times poignant narrative. What makes the novel stand apart from other fictional treatments of Shakespeare is Burgess’s ability to produce an authentic-sounding version of Elizabethan English, and his decision to frame the narrative as the drunken last lecture of a teacher – Mr Burgess – who is saying farewell to Malaya. Burgess’s facility with language is emphasised by his frequent use of Joycean stream-of-consciousness to convey his hero’s thoughts. It makes for an exhilarating read, with vividly-realised scenes ranging from a brothel in Bristol to an execution at Tyburn to anguished encounters with the Dark Lady. Burgess, who wrote a biography of Shakespeare, also refers to him elsewhere in his fiction, and his great rival Marlowe is fictionalised in the late novel A Dead Man in Deptford.
Probably the most memorable character in the Burgess canon is the dyspeptic poet Enderby, living a shabbily precarious existence on the fringes of the literary world. Burgess wrote more about Enderby than any other character. He appears in four novels, having, like Sherlock Holmes, to be resurrected after fictional death to placate his admirers. It is evident that Enderby, though a repugnant character in many ways, gained a level of approval seldom accorded to Burgess’s characters, even by his admirers. The first appearance of Enderby, in the novel Inside Mr Enderby established the character, who was to appear in a further three novels in increasingly bizarre circumstances. In this novel and in Enderby Outside, Burgess presents an often hilarious vision of bohemian life, populated with a shifting cast of poetasters, charlatans, pop stars, chancers and deadbeats, who form obstacles on the poet’s picaresque journey to poetic fulfilment. The humour is often literally lavatorial, since Enderby can only compose while seated at the toilet. But the character and his adventures are presented with Burgess’s characteristic linguistic verve, offering the reader a feast of learned wordplay spiced with music-hall low comedy, and more words for flatulence than you knew existed.
The great success of Burgess’s later career was his massive, century-spanning saga Earthly Powers, which begins with what is surely one of literature’s best opening sentences:
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
The first-person narrator is Kenneth Toomey, a gay novelist somewhat after the manner of Somerset Maugham, whose rich life story forms the basis of the narrative. Burgess interweaves his fictional characters’ lives with those of the literary and artistic elite of the twentieth century and uses the historical framework as a backdrop both for the first person account of the life of his central character, and also as a way of grounding Toomey’s discursive ruminations on the nature of good and evil in a tangible reality. Another late novel, Any Old Iron, also covers much of the history of our times, but on this occasion, Burgess uses a mythological basis for his wide-ranging narrative, tracing the lives of a disparate group of people whose history is touched by the quest for the sword of King Arthur. Like Earthly Powers, the novel uses major events such as the sinking of the Titanic and the Russian revolution to form a context for the lives of the protagonists. It’s also notable for its use of Burgess’s Mancunian background for some key passages. It’s a sprawling, untidy book, but richly rewarding in its rendering of the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
The work in the last few years of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester has not only increased academic attention but also reinvigorated the back catalogue, with many out of print titles becoming available again. At the recent ‘Burgess 100’ conference, held at the foundation, the first volumes of what will become the standard uniform edition of Burgess’s work were launched. This initiative, named the Irwell Edition after the river that flows through Burgess’s native city, has the ambitious aim of eventually covering all of his written work, including many items not previously published, which continue to be discovered in the extensive archives of Burgessiana in Manchester and other locations. The initial books in the Irwell Edition are Burgess’s first novel, A Vision of Battlements, based on his wartime service in Gibraltar, and The Pianoplayers, another strongly autobiographical work, dealing with working-class life between the wars in Manchester.
It is said that a writer’s reputation usually dips not long after their death, and then improves as their work is reassessed. Now, nearly a quarter of a century after his death, Burgess is finally being seen as the major author he undoubtedly was. This is his time.
Rob Spence writes about books and other things at robspence.org.uk You can find him on Twitter: @spencro
Also read Five Fascinating Facts about… Anthony Burgess – click here.